GOP hopefuls back Indiana religious freedom law

Greg Nash

Potential Republican presidential contenders on Monday came to the defense of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), who is under intense criticism for signing a controversial law that critics say would allow businesses to refuse service to gay people.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sens. Ted CruzTed CruzJudge unseals documents on Trump University GOP senators move to keep women out of military draft GOP senators split over Cruz's aid on campaign trail MORE (Texas) and Marco RubioMarco RubioThe Trail 2016: Biting the hand that feeds him Judge unseals documents on Trump University The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (Fla.), and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are among the potential and declared Republican presidential candidates arguing that, rather than providing cover to those who would discriminate, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects the rights of those seeking to freely exercise their religious beliefs.

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“I think if [critics] got briefed on the law that they wouldn’t be blasting this law,” Bush said on the Hugh Hewitt radio show. “I think Governor Pence has done the right thing. Florida has a law like this. Bill Clinton signed a law like this at the federal level. This is simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs, to have, to be able to be people of conscience. I just think once the facts are established, people aren’t going to see this as discriminatory at all.”

“There are many cases where people acting on their conscience have been castigated by the government,” Bush added. “And this law simply says the government has to have a level of burden to be able to establish that there’s been some kind of discrimination. We’re going to need this. This is really an important value for our country too, in a diverse country, where you can respect and be tolerant of people’s lifestyles, but allow for people of faith to be able to exercise theirs.”

Rubio also framed the law as necessary to stop the government from forcing business owners to violate their religious beliefs.

“No one here is saying it should be legal to deny someone service at a restaurant or at a hotel because of their sexual orientation, I think that’s a consensus view in America,” he said Monday on Fox News’s "The Five." “The flip side of it is — should a photographer be punished for refusing to do a wedding that their faith teaches them is not one that is valid in the eyes of God?”

I think people have the right to live out their religious faith in their own lives,” Rubio continued. “They can't impose it on you in your life. But they have a right to live it out in their own lives. And when you're asking someone who provides professional services to do something, or be punished by law, that violates their faith, you're violating that religious liberty that they have."

Cruz, who is so far the only major GOP candidate to have officially announced he intends to run for president, lauded Pence for “holding the line” on religious liberty.

“I want to commend Governor Mike Pence for his support of religious freedom, especially in the face of fierce opposition,” Cruz said. “There was a time, not too long ago, when defending religious liberty enjoyed strong bipartisan support. Alas, today we are facing a concerted assault on the First Amendment, on the right of every American to seek out and worship God according to the dictates of his or her conscience. Governor Pence is holding the line to protect religious liberty in the Hoosier State. Indiana is giving voice to millions of courageous conservatives across this country who are deeply concerned about the ongoing attacks upon our personal liberties. I'm proud to stand with Mike, and I urge Americans to do the same.”

Walker’s support for the bill was not as full-throated, but his press secretary said in a statement that the Wisconsin governor supports measures that protect a person’s right to practice their religious beliefs.

"As a matter of principle, Gov. Walker believes in broad religious freedom and the right for Americans to exercise their religion and act on their conscience," AshLee Strong, the press secretary for Walker's Our American Revival, said in a statement.

Pence signed the law Thursday, saying it was  designed to protect individuals and businesses from being forced to violate their religious beliefs.

Supporters say it will prevent the government from encroaching on the constitutional rights of the faithful, while critics say it will give cover to individuals and businesses to discriminate against gays.

Supporters of the law argue that 19 other states have similar religious freedom statutes on the books, and that many of them have been modeled after a 1993 federal law signed by then-President Clinton.

Still, the law has provoked a firestorm of criticism, leaving Republican lawmakers in Indiana scrambling to clarify the language in the law at a time when Indiana will be under the spotlight as host of the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament.

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